Over this past weekend, my wife and I
were sitting down at the table to sample Japanese brand
Hitachino Nest's Nipponia beer.
Hitachino is unique among craft brewers in that it's
not trying to merely ape the styles of prominent American
and European craft breweries.
It goes out of its way to incorporate Japanese
ingredients and brewing styles from Japanese beverages like
sake and shouju.
Nipponia's claim to uniqueness is that it uses a Japanese
breed of malt called Kaneko Golden as well as a strain of
Japanese hops known as Sorachi Ace.
But I digress.
Wherever I've seen Nipponia for sale on the internet
or even on menus here in Bangkok, it's billed as an ale or
Well, soon after I sampled a range of Hitachino Nest
beers, I recommended them to a beer connoisseur friend of
mine living in New York.
He dutifully went out to a local shop and purchased
four bottles, leaving a fifth variety on the shelf.
"I'll sample the Hitachino pilsner later," he wrote
To my knowledge, Hitachino didn't manufacture a beer
in the pilsner department.
"The Nipponia," he wrote back.
The Nipponia is a pilsner?
News to me.
I've had pilsners.
They're light. They're clear.
The most famous brand and example, exported
worldwide, is Pilsner Urquell, the brew which first defined
Nipponia tasted nothing like this.
So what makes Nipponia a pilsner, a
pale type of lager?
For that matter, what is really the difference
between an ale and a lager?
I used to think, until quite recently,
that ales were just beers brewed according to an older
style, heartier, with less chemical interferences, the brown
rice or whole wheats of the beer world if you will.
Lagers, by contrast, were the more modern version,
possibly brewed with chemicals and fillers and much lighter,
like white bread or white rice.
In a very general way, this is true,
but it's not very scientific.
And the matter gets more confusing with all the other
varieties of beers which are ever more often used to market
beers. Bocks, dunkels, lambics, IPA's, kolsches, saisons, altbiers.
Are there really this many?
By scientific convention, there are
only two types of beers.
Yes, that's right.
Ales and lagers.
What differentiates the two is quite simple.
Ales use top-fermenting yeasts and are warm fermented
at temperatures between 15 and 24° C for a shorter period of
time, about a month.
Lagers use bottom-fermenting yeasts and are cold
fermented at temperatures between 0 and 10° C and can take 8
weeks at 0° C.
Stronger lagers take even longer.
Ales were, by far, the more popular
beer until the mid-nineteenth century because they were
easier to brew.
Refrigeration systems did not yet exist, so if one wanted to
produce lagers, he had to do so in cool surroundings.
Hence, lagering in caves was a noted practice as
early as the medieval period in Europe.
There were limits though.
A brewer didn't have the technology in 1750 to set up
a full scale 'modern' brewery (by the standards of that
time) in a cave.
Therefore, ales were the beers commonly served to the
became ever more popular and eventually supplanted ales as
the preferred beer of choice with the advent of more modern
In 1860, roughly a third of all Czech breweries were
dedicated to lagers.
Just a decade later, 98% were lager breweries.
By 1891 in the United States, nearly every brewery
was equipped with some kind of refrigerating machine, and
the American lager style was already on its way to taking
over the nation's palates.
Lagers and ales.
That's all you have to remember to sound clued up
So where did all the other beer
classification terms come from?
To put your mind at ease, there is no
scientifically agreed upon classification system for beer.
The terms you commonly see today are just accepted
conventions borrowed from history.
A brown ale, for example, is usually hopped very
lightly and has a nuttier taste.
I say usually.
Modern craft brewers throw convention out the window.
One of their brown ales may be heavily hopped with a
stronger flavor, and although it's brown and nutty, people
will classify it as an IPA because IPA's have now become a
widely recognized and accepted style.
What separates an American lager type
from a pilsner?
Sometimes a lot, sometimes a little.
Science doesn't play a role in the difference.
The American lager type, if you want to think of it
as a type, tends to be more watery and use adjuncts like
rice or corn to bulk up sweetness on the quick without
raising protein content.
The ABV's are in the lower range, usually 3.5-4.5%.
A pilsner tends to - notice I say tends, not
has to - have more hops and use mainly malted barley.
Try to imagine going back in time.
The first brewer brews a batch of pilsner in Bohemia
and it's an immediate hit, only it's not called pilsner as
pilsner has not yet become a widely recognized style.
Naturally, other breweries got into the brewing of
When these later beers are marketed to consumers and
to pubs, they're referred to as "beers in the same style as Meštanský pivovar Plzen (the name of the brewery which first
brewed it)." As the
style spread abroad, it got linked to the location of its
origination, the town of Plzen.
A new "style" has evolved.
The dictionary definition of a bock today is a strong
lager of German origin, first developed in the town of
Einbeck in the fourteenth century.
Bavarian brewers adopted the technique three hundred
years later, and with their Bavarian accents, pronounced
Einbeck as Einbock.
Again, a new beer term is magically born.
Tomorrow, someone will likely invent
more beer terms, but unless they invent a new type of yeast,
say a middle fermenting one, beer will continue to be truly
differentiated by just the terms ale and lager.
So getting back to to the question I
posed in the beginning: is
Nipponia really a pilsner?
Some would debate that the definition of pilsner,
codified over two centuries of brewing, has been abused by
Hitachino with this brew.
But Nipponia really is a lager, as it uses bottom
fermenting yeasts and is conditioned like a lager.
No one can sue Hitachino for deciding to call their
particular lager a pilsner, an American lager, heaven's
nectar, Japanese Salvation, or anything else they please.
Subcategorizations are largely
Pick a beer based on the style you desire (ale vs
lager), sample it, and categorize it yourself.